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As the panel moderator, you have prepared for an amazingly powerful panel discussion.  You’ve thought about the panelists, created an interesting format, and curated provocative questions.  But your work is not quite done.  Take a moment to think about your contingency plan – what you will do when the “unexpected” happens.

Will the panel address a controversial topic?  Have the presence of the panelists incited disruptive behavior at other events?  Carol Cambridge, a workplace violence expert says, “Controversial speakers or controversial subjects such as immigration, animal rights or even oil drilling can provoke violence.”  Are the panelists being stalked by an ex or a fan?  Cambridge continues, “You would be surprised by the number of speakers who have found themselves in this type of terrifying situation.  Make sure your meeting professional [and panel moderator!] is aware of the threat.”

Prior to the event, think about your response to a number of situations. Crisis expert Gerard Braud calls this your “Vulnerability Assessment,” in which you list all of the crises your organization, or you as a panel moderator, speaker, or meeting professional are vulnerable to during an event. This is just the first step of his 5 Steps to Keep a Situation from Becoming a Crisis at Your Next Meeting:

Specifically, think about your response to these five different emergency situations:

  • Social disturbances:
    • Heckler(s) or protestor(s) – a person who intentionally interrupts the panel with derisive, aggressive, or objectionable comments
    • Downright crazy people – a person who disrupts the panel through disruptive behaviors
    • Gate crasher(s) – a person who is not invited to attend the event and should not be granted access to the room
  • Medical emergencies – a person who is ill, injured, exposed to a toxic chemical spill or contamination, or even dying
  • Facility malfunctions – the lights go out, limited/loss of communication, structural collapse, toxic chemical spill
  • Terrorism – a bomb threat or active shooter
  • Acts of God – any force of nature that keeps the panel from proceeding as planned e.g. earthquake, fire, flood, hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster.

During your discussions with the meeting organizer, ask for their Emergency Action Plan.  Some organizers will look pleasantly surprised and offer to email it to you.  They will smile to themselves and think, “Wow!  That panel moderator sure has his or her act together!  No worries here…I am confident that we are in good hands!”

Other meeting organizers will sheepishly admit they don’t have one.  That’s okay!  This is not the time to make them feel guilty – just ask them these questions:

  1. Based on your understanding of the event, the speakers/panelists and the audience, what’s the probability of any of these things (see above) may happen?  Most will say, “low,” but some panels face more adversity than others.  Never take any of this for granted.
  2. If something like this DID happen, how would you like me to proceed?  Listen carefully, take notes, and then follow up with an email outlining the steps you agreed upon.  You have just done them a favor by creating the start to an Emergency Action Plan!
  3. As a fallback to the blank stare/deer in the headlight response, say, “Unless otherwise directed, here’s what I will do in the event of an emergency:
    • I will do my best to ensure the health and safety of the event participants.
    • I will remain calm and keep the attendees informed as best as possible.
    • I will phone the venue’s safety/security number, notifying them of the situation.
    • I will text you (the meeting organizer) at the cell phone number you give me.
    • After the event, I will send an email to you summarizing the incident and provide any information I have.”

You will also want to add to your session checklist a couple of items:

  • Note the indoor relocation and outdoor evacuation stations.
  • Note the nearest exit and evacuation route from the meeting room.
  • Note the meeting organizer’s cell phone number and the location of the house phone as well as the extension to call in case of emergency.
  • Especially when speaking in a foreign country, know the emergency number for contacting the police.

No one wants, nor expects these things to happen.  Yet, as a panel moderator, you can expect the unexpected! And as Gerard Braud would add,

“Fail to plan, plan to fail.”

Related Articles:

How to Organize a Panel Discussion

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions

For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series or our other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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